The Table Podcast

Was the Virgin Birth Copied from Other Religions?

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock, Mikel Del Rosario, and Mary Jo Sharp discus claims that Jesus’ virgin birth story was copied from pagan religions.

Timecodes
00:15
How should we approach alleged parallels?
02:00
Sharp’s journey from atheism to Christianity
04:09
Three steps to investigate claims of copying
10:13
Was Jesus birth story copied from Osiris?
15:27
Was Jesus birth story copied from Mithra?
17:16
Was Jesus birth story copied from Alexander the Great?
20:30
Was Jesus birth story copied from Caesar Augustus?
26:42
Was Jesus birth story copied from Buddha?
28:43
The uniqueness of Jesus’ virgin birth
38:49
The message of Jesus’ birth story
46:40
What is striking and wondrous about Jesus’ birth story?
Resources Mary Jo Sharp, Confident Christianity  The Centre for Public Christianity Mikel Del Rosario, Apologetics Guy Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth Plutarch, Lives Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars    
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I am Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. Our topic today is the virgin birth and alleged parallels to it.

Our guests are Mary Jo Sharp, who is assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. And she is with us via technology by Skype from her home in Houston, Texas.

Mary Jo Sharp
Hi. Hello.
Darrell Bock
Good to see you. And I take it you survived the hurricane in good shape and are basking in the glory of Astro’s victory.
Mary Jo Sharp
Exactly. That’s totally right. We survived, and now we’re basking.
Darrell Bock
And she is just back from a trip from Israel. I mean, your life is full, busy, and no apologies, right?
Mary Jo Sharp
Yeah, I like that way of saying it. That really frames it well.
Darrell Bock
There you go. And then our other guest is Mikel Del Rosario, who not only works with me at the Hendricks Center as a project manager for The Table podcast and is pursuing his PhD here at Dallas, but also is adjunct professor of apologetics and world religions at William Jessup, which is in – is it Rocklin, California?
Mikel Del Rosario
Yes, Rocklin.
Darrell Bock
That’s a suburb of Sacramento, California. So we’ve got the middle and the west coast of the country represented. We’ve got good coverage here.

Our goal today is to kind of walk through what happens when people claim parallels. And we’re going to look at the virgin birth in particular as we think about this. And Mary Jo has worked on this in general as an apologist. So let’s talk a little bit about how does – if I remember correctly, are you from Oklahoma originally? Am I getting that right? Where are you from originally?

Mary Jo Sharp
Originally I’m from Portland, Oregon.
Darrell Bock
Portland, Oregon. Okay, I got that wrong.
Mary Jo Sharp
But I lived in Oklahoma. You’re close.
Darrell Bock
Okay, okay. And so how does an Oregonian gal like you end up in apologetics?
Mary Jo Sharp
Yeah, that is interesting. Because there was no point in my childhood where I thought, hey, I’m going to be a Christian apologist. Or even a Christian.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. I don’t think I’ve evert asked a six-year-old girl that question and gotten that answer.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes, no, I grew up without a church background. I grew up generally just atheist, but I wouldn’t have known to call myself that. Because I was just raised outside of church and raised on a lot of Carl Sagan and nature shows and science shows.

And I became a believer in college. So I reversed the stat there. I’m the opposite of the statistic. I went off to college and became a believer.

And after being in the church for several years, I began to notice that the people who professed the Christianity was true and would say the Bible was true didn’t seem too much care to adhere to the teachings of the Bible. And I don’t just mean they messed up here and there; I mean it was continual. And I saw things in the church that were concerning to me, the way they behaved and treated one-another. And so I began to question my belief in God. I would say that it probably began as an emotional doubt due to what I was seeing in the church and the hypocrisy.

And that led me to intellectual questioning, which led me to wonder why I believed in God. Why did I say that I had salvation in Jesus Christ and why did I believe in the Bible as true? And so then I started looking for answers to my own questions. And I didn’t mean to end up in apologetics. That’s kind of just what happened as a natural outworking of my own investigation.

Darrell Bock
And how long have you been at HBU now?
Mary Jo Sharp
This is my sixth year at HBU.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So you’ve been there for a while now.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
So let’s talk about your interest in apologetics and in particular this issue. You’ve done some work in the Mithra and Horace backdrops that people claim with reference to the virgin birth. But before we look at those and talk about those in some detail, talking about figures like Osiris and Mithra, I want to talk a little bit about parallels in general.

So talk to us about – you hear a claim that’s made like this and someone says oh, well, the virgin birth of Jesus is just a mirror of something that came long before, something like that. How do you investigate something like that? What is your advice to people in terms of the approach?

Mary Jo Sharp
What a great question. I think people at first don’t think to investigate it. You should want to investigate if you hear a claim like this rather than say, “Wow, that sounds good; I’ll go with that.” And that’s more of what I hear when I see this argument made. It’s not really that people deeply investigated it, it’s more like, “That sounds right, I think I’ll go with that.” And they haven’t really looked at both sides. So I’m really glad you’re asking this question.

I give sort of a three-point here’s how to go about investigating it. And the first thing I tell people is you need to get the whole story. So if somebody is telling you, you know, like you’ve watched Bill Maher on The View and he’s saying the story of Jesus is an exact copy of Horace – which is verbatim what he said – and that bothers you, then you need to get the whole story first.

So you actually need to go in and read the stories to see what is being said in the story of Horace and Osiris and Metris and Dionysius. What do their stories actually say? And that’s really important because I don’t think a lot of people do that. They listen to guys like Bill Maher or maybe The Power of Myth. They’re going back to Campbell’s work. Maybe – maybe – they’re relying on some of these internet sites as well. So get the whole story. Actually read the story for yourself.

Darrell Bock
You mean HBO and the internet aren’t the source of truth? [Laughter]
Mary Jo Sharp
I’ve got a good one for you on that. I’m writing for the Gospel Project. And I’m trying to find a quote from G.K. Chesterton on material I’m writing. And so I find this quote online and it’s something I want to use. And here’s just how bad it is out there guys. I found hundreds of pages that were using this quote that G.K. Chesterton never said. Tons of internet memes and hundreds of pages.
Darrell Bock
The myth of the historical G.K. Chesterton [Laughter].
Mary Jo Sharp
I think the same thing happens with these pagan men. People go online, they find the Pagan Origins of the Christ and the theory websites and they’re like, well, there it is. This guy has done some research, so it must be true. Or they find Zeitgeist, the movie.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. You put the graphics up next to it and just line it up and say, “Well, it must be true because that’s what it says.” I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Mary Jo, but there is a site – actually it’s a center in Sydney, Australia called The Center for Public Christianity. John Dixon runs it. And they have done a brilliant five-minute piece on Zeitgeist in which they interview Chris Forbes, who teaches ancient History at Macquarie University. And somehow when you hear it with some form of a British commonwealth accent, it sounds more true. [Laughter]

And so he does this refutation of Zeitgeist in about five minutes and just walks through all the problems with it. If you need a visual support for this kind of a point, it really is a good resource place to find things.

Mary Jo Sharp
Yes, I have seen that. It’s been awhile, but I’ve seen it. Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. But you want to get the whole story. I’m sure he refers to this.

And then the second point was take the parallels head-to-head. Actually see if the parallels are parallel. You know? And we’ll see that with the virgin birth here when we look at that. But sometimes the similarities that are being compared are so vague in how they’re similar that you could actually use the same reasoning to compare anything to anything else. And you’ve got to be careful of that.

Darrell Bock
That’s right. Like there was a birth. [Laughter] Yeah, I don’t mean to have fun with this, as much fun as we’re having, but it is amazing. Of course when you don’t look anything up and you don’t investigate, you don’t go to the primary source and take a look at it in some way to see what the wording actually is and that kind of thing, then your tendency is just to assume that what you’re being told is true.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And we know a lot of what we know based on authorities. I’m not going to say that, boy, you have to look up every single little fact in your life, because then you would never get out of bed in the morning, right? You couldn’t if you didn’t rely on some kind of authority for some areas in your life. We do rely on them.

But if this is something that you are claiming as absolutely true and it’s the reason you don’t believe in God, or if it has shaken your faith, then you need to look it up. That’s the responsible thing to do. So take those parallels head-to-head.

And then the final point, Darrell, was to set everything in context. So if a term like virgin or resurrection is being thrown around for another religion or pagan religion especially, does it mean the same thing in context as it meant to the first-century Christian believers? So that’s an important thing too.

And then how does it outwork into their culture? That’s another big – between the myths in Christianity and Judaism and Islam there’s these very different outworkings of these things. Like on the nature of reality and the nature of man and the nature of God. So you need to actually set everything in context.

Darrell Bock
Okay. Well, that’s a nice overview. So let’s do it. Let’s dive into the investigation and take a look. Let’s start with Osiris and the idea that the virgin birth goes all the way back in time, to use the words of that great theologian Chris Berman, “Back, back, back, back, back” to the Egyptians. And tell us a little bit about this claim first of all, and then let’s put them head-to-head.
Mary Jo Sharp
Okay. So the claim that we’re handling is that many gods have virgin births. And so you can find them if you just go back and you look at all these different gods.

So what I have done is I have actually gone back and looked at what is being said about Osiris. How can we make this claim that he has a virgin birth?

And so the virgin birth of Osiris, what I’ve done is I’ve gone in and read the very secondary sources and then went into and read Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Pyramid Texts where we get the story of Osiris. And when I say I’ve read them, those are translations. Because this is coming out of hieroglyphics. So I wasn’t reading hieroglyphics.

Darrell Bock
Right. Okay.
Mary Jo Sharp
So what we find is that Osiris is actually – he is the offspring of an affair between two gods. He is an offspring of the earth god and the sky goddess. The earth god Geb, and the sky goddess Nut. And in fact, the affair causes such a problem for the sky goddess and her husband that her husband denies her the days in the year to give birth to her children. She has like seven of them. And Osiris is one of them. Isis is one of them as well. And so it ends up that another god, Thoth, has to actually play checkers with the moon – I’m not sure how this comes into relating to Jesus. [Laughter] But he played checkers, like a game with the moon in order to win more days of the year for the sky goddess to have her children. And so therefore she is able to have Osiris.
Darrell Bock
So is Osiris her firstborn? And if she has got a husband, is this another man that she is having a relationship with? Is this even a virgin birth?
Mary Jo Sharp
Right. So we can just start getting down into all the details. But if we look at it from sort of a 30,000-foot level, these are all gods. Right? Everything going on here is in the realm of the gods. This is not a human being born on the earth by a female who had never had sex with a male before. There is nothing even similar to that.

And it gets even more interesting when we find out about Horace’s birth because Osiris and Isis, we find in Horace’s birth, are having sex in their mother’s womb while they are still god fetuses. So it gets even more fantastic.

Darrell Bock
Oh wow. I guess the conclusion is when we look at the detail on this one, not close. [Laughter]
Mary Jo Sharp
Not close. And that’s what’s shocking to me. When I’ve talked to people who are atheists who hold to this, when they actually start reading the stories or reading like Plutarch’s record of the mysteries on Isis and Osiris, then they start to get like, wow, I’ve never heard this.
Darrell Bock
Yes. There’s a little mantra I like to give to students about the Bible, but I think it’s also true here. And it is nothing beats observing the text. Nothing, nothing at all. And so I think that’s what we’re dealing with here. I tell people that sometimes the best refutation on some of this stuff is to just look it up. And you read it and you go, how was that comparison even begun to be made? It was because people were fishing for some kind of loose comparison.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And that’s what we see in history. If you go back and you seriously study religious syncretism with regard to the pagan myths and mysteries and then the world’s monotheistic religions, you’re going to start finding that this was considered a dead argument in academia in the past century. Academics were putting their careers on the line if they were going to purport this, if they were going to continue to promote it. And that’s because it was such an egregiously-made argument.

It was very intellectually dishonest, where you’re like putting up a list of things, like we see in Zeitgeist. Okay, I’m going to find the mythic hero, and so I’m going to make this list of items. And now I’m going to go find that in every religion and every belief system that has ever been. Well, when you do something like that, you are putting yourself in a position of really stretching the truth and really stretching the context of what these things are, including definitionally stretching the truth of virgin.

Darrell Bock
Yes. When Chris Forbes talks about this, he says this is the story of Jesus, because it is the story of Jesus. It’s just not the story of the god that is said to be in parallel. And so it works that way.

Okay, so that’s Horace. So that’s one down. Let’s go to Mithra and what’s going on there. And birth from the rock is the note that I have here. So that just sounds very fascinating.

Mary Jo Sharp
He is my favorite one. So what you see if you watch Zeitgeist is you’ll see a B.C. dating on Mithras. And then you’ll see all of these comparisons to Jesus, including a virgin birth. Well, the problem is that what Peter Joseph is doing is he is using a god from an ancient time from Persia. He is using either Mitra or Mithra and using that story of one of those two gods and comparing it to the Roman god Mithras who was in existence at the time. In existence meaning his story was in existence at the time of Jesus. And so that in itself is intellectually dishonest, to use that background in order to date Mithras.

But Mithras is a Roman god. And his story, if you’re going to compare the one that was around the time of Jesus, he is actually a god of the underworld. He jumps out of the underworld with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. The torch is used to guide his way to the upper realm, here. And the dagger was used to subdue all the creatures of the earth once he got out of that rock.

But his birth is actually he jumps out of a rock on the banks of a river [Crosstalk].

Darrell Bock
It’s actually a door.
Mary Jo Sharp
You’ve got a virgin rock there.
Darrell Bock
Well, I guess you can put those two words next to one another. I just don’t know if it works. Anyway, okay. So that one is also not close.
Mary Jo Sharp
Right.
Darrell Bock
Yes. Okay, we’re going to turn our attention now to some Greco-Roman examples. And for these I’m going to talk to Mikel. And this conversation Mikel and I are going to have goes back to a project that he did a couple of years ago in a class that he took with me on Jesus and the media. And so he studied these texts and then presented them visually in a video that he has made available.

And so let’s do it in the order of – let’s do the Plutarch text first and then we’ll do Suetonius. We’ve got a text from Plutarch’s Lives. And it involves Alexander the Great, who was born in 336 B.C. So we are well before the time of Christ. But Plutarch is writing about four centuries later. And let’s talk about this supposed parallel to the birth of Jesus. And we’re going to take Mary Jo’s advice and just look at the text and see what – you know, nothing beats observing the text. Nothing, nothing at all. So what is this text telling us about Alexander the Great’s virgin birth?

Mikel Del Rosario
Yes. So when we think about these things, we think, “What are the similarities?” And it turns out that all things are similar if you ignore the differences. Right?
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Mikel Del Rosario
So let’s take a look at this text. I’m going to take some time to read this section out of Plutarch. And just think about the story of Jesus that we hear at Christmastime and what the virgin birth is, and then compare it to this in your mind. Here we go.

Plutarch writes, “It is said that his father Phillip,” – they’re talking about Alexander here – “fell in love with Olympias, Alexander’s mother. At the time when they were both initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace. He was then a young man and she an orphan. And after obtaining the consent of her brother, Arridaeus, Phillip betrothed himself to her. On the night before the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a crash of thunder, and her womb was struck by a thunderbolt. And there followed a blinding flash from which a great sheet of flame blazed up and spread far and wide before it finally died away.

“Then, sometime after their marriage, Phillip saw himself in a dream in the act of sealing up his wife’s womb. And upon the seal he had used there was engraved, so it seemed to him, the figure of a lion. The soothsayers treated this dream with suspicion since it seemed to suggest that Phillip needed to keep a closer watch on his wife. The only exception was Aristander of Telmessos, who declared that the woman must be pregnant, since men do not seal up what is empty, and that she would bring forth a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like.

“At another time, a serpent was seen stretched out at Olympia’s side as she slept. And it was this more than anything else we were told which weakened Phillip’s passion and cooled his affection for her. So from that time on he seldom came to sleep with her. The reason for this may either have been that he was afraid that she would cast some evil spell or charm upon him, or else that he recoiled from her embrace because he believed that she was the consort of some higher being.”

Darrell Bock
That’s it.
Mikel Del Rosario
That’s the full text.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So what do we have?
Mikel Del Rosario
We have nothing at all that looks like Jesus here. We have this serpent lying by her side. And there’s kind of this serpent theme actually that goes into some of these Greco-Roman alleged parallels. But here when it comes to Alexander, we don’t have any kind of non-sex – because I think this implies some kind of a sexual relationship if he thought that she was the consort. But as well it’s an interpretation of a dream. So it’s very unclear that she was not engaged in any kind of sexual activity.
Darrell Bock
The thing that strikes me about these stories is that they are very, if I can say it, very detailed about the moment of conception. So you’ve got the detail here about the serpent seen stretched out at Olympus’ side as she slept. And this weakened Phillip’s passion. Now, that part I get. So we are dealing here with this portrait in detail of how this act actually took place. So the closest thing that we have is we have Alexander’s birth being attributed to some type of transcendent activity.
Mikel Del Rosario
Sure. Generally speaking.
Darrell Bock
But that’s it.
Mikel Del Rosario
Which is very different than the very, very short mention in the Bible of the Holy Spirit will come upon you. And that’s it. Very simple.
Darrell Bock
Exactly. And there’s no detail given to this at all in the New Testament when we’re talking about Jesus’ birth.

And then the second example comes from Suetonius, or as W.A. Criswell used to pronounce it, Sue-tonius. [Laughter]

Roman historian writing about 180 years after Augustus was born, writing in the early 2nd Century. He wrote a work called The Twelve Caesars. And in this he has a section on Augustus, who is probably the most prominent of the Caesars perhaps, except for maybe you could perhaps make a case for Julius Caesar being more important. But certainly one of the more prominent emperors. And it talks about his birth. What does this story look like?

Mikel Del Rosario
This story looks like his mom was worshipping Apollo at this very, very late night worship service. She falls asleep, and here’s what happens. Let’s take a look at the story.

“Augustus’ mother, Atia, with certain married women friends once attended a solemn midnight service at the temple of Apollo where she had her litter sit down. And presently she fell asleep, probably because it was very, very late, as the others also did. Suddenly, a serpent glided up, entered her, and then glided away again.

“On awakening, she purified herself as if after intimacy with her husband. An irremovable colored mark in the shape of a serpent which then appeared on her body made her ashamed to visit the public baths anymore. And the birth of Augustus nine months later suggested a divine paternity.”

And so here we see again this snake metaphor. I don’t know where this comes from. But we have this parallel here where a snake glides up into her, it says. And so besides that, Augustus had an older sister, Octavia. And so no virgin in this case. And we have, again, sexual contact with a snake or some kind of supernatural power, a god in this form. Again, all things are similar if you ignore the differences.

Darrell Bock
So she is married at this time.
Mikel Del Rosario
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And you mentioned that he has a sister. So this is not a virgin birth.
Mikel Del Rosario
No.
Darrell Bock
Again, it’s just simply a claim for a divine origin, and that’s it. So again, these two examples are slightly closer than the first two examples that we had, but they’re not quite up to where we were on what the virgin birth is about.

And so we learn that, again, nothing beats observing the text. You want to go to the originals and see what they say. And what you find is these claims for parallels actually are not very persuasive in terms of what they show.

Mary Jo, do you have any observations as you’ve listened to these two examples from the Greco-Roman world? And we’ve got to be a little bit quick because we’re coming up to a break.

Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. Again, I would say – just generalities. But first of all, you really do need to take those parallels head-to-head. Right? The kinds of things that are being said in our society is that this is an exact copy of the story of Jesus. And when you actually read them – I’m glad Mikel read them – you start to say if you’ve ever read Luke 2, if you’ve ever read the story of Jesus’ birth, you say, well, I don’t see the connection here. I’m not even seeing the same story. And that’s what happens over and over with these, is that even on the basis level of just reading the stories – not getting into their philosophical world views, not getting into the theology of what this means for mankind, just on the base level you see they’re not the same at all.
Darrell Bock
Yes. We’ve looked at Horace and the study of Osiris and we’ve looked at Mithra and Mithras connections. We have looked at the claims associated with Alexander the Great and Plutarch and with Caesar Augustus and Suetonius. And we have one more example that sometimes is raised. And this is the example tied to claims related to Buddha and buddha’s background. So Mikel, tell us about this one.
Mikel Del Rosario
This one is not very well-known. A few people will talk about Buddha, but not really know where it comes from. So Buddha lived many, many different lives, the story goes. And one day he remembered these lives. This is in the Pali Canon about 200 B.C. this was in place. And the story goes one of his previous lives this is how he was born. There were these two beings who were kind of higher than humans. And they were from this Brahman world. They came down – boy, girl – and they became hermits. They got married and they became hermits. One day the guy touched the lady’s stomach and that’s how Buddha was conceived in this case.

Now, perhaps a virgin birth because there was no sex mentioned in the text. But these aren’t even human beings. They’re not human beings. And the parallel has got to be something that Mark would know, that Luke would know. There’s a very, very small chance that any of the –

Darrell Bock
You don’t think they had frequent flyer miles to India or something? [Laughter]
Mikel Del Rosario
So the unlikelihood that this would influence the Christian story actually comes into play as well. So that’s another thing to think about when we look at these parallels. Even if you get something that looks kind of close maybe, you go, well, yeah, but how would they possibly have been influenced by this story?
Darrell Bock
Okay. So we’ve gone through these examples. And clearly what we are seeing is that this doesn’t explain the background of the virgin birth. The closest you can get to any kind of claim is the idea that somehow a great figure might have some element of transcendent connection. And that’s about as close as you can get.

So let’s turn our attention to the virgin birth itself. Now, what’s interesting about this is that the virgin birth is not – I think it’s fair to say – is not a big deal in the New Testament. By which I mean there aren’t tons of passages that discuss this. There are – I mean, you can count them on one hand. So that’s the first observation to make, is that it’s not something that’s in lots of texts. It’s alluded to directly in Matthew and in Luke, with Matthew explicitly tying it to the prediction of Isaiah 7:14 and the language of Luke alluding to such texts, but not actually citing them. So we have got those two examples that are the most prominent idea of the virgin birth in an articulation.

But Mikel, what stands out about the way in which that description is given given the parallels that we’ve gone through? In other words, what’s the biggest difference that you see besides the fact that many of the parallels involve relationships between gods and not a god-human relationship? What’s the other thing that stands out to you as you think about the differences?

Mikel Del Rosario
Well, one, they are very different in terms of the simplicity with which we see in the Bible. The Lord just does it and there’s no explanation of the mechanism with how that worked. There are no fantastical elements like snakes coming up or visions of thunder hitting someone’s womb.

But this raised suspicions in terms of Jesus. So even though we don’t specifically see the virgin birth mentioned in all of the gospels, we have allusions like in John 8 where these people were telling Jesus, “We weren’t born of immorality. We all know how Joseph isn’t your real bio-day.” Or Mark 6 where he is called the Son of Mary where normally you wouldn’t mention the mom, you’d mention the dad.

Darrell Bock
So the point here is that we have a couple of texts that mention the virgin birth directly and then we have a couple of texts that suggest that something is going on.
Mikel Del Rosario
Uh-huh. And it wasn’t emphasized, like you said. And I think that if they would make it up to make Christianity seem more positive or attract more people, they would talk about it more. And so why wouldn’t they talk it up if they made it up?
Darrell Bock
Yes. So it’s almost like thrown into the – from the side in that sense. So the other places where we suggest that something is going on is a text like Philippians 2:6-7 where we get the idea of even though he existed in the form of God, he didn’t regard quality with God as something to be grasped onto or held onto, but emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, which pictures Jesus as someone sent from heaven. John 1 does the same thing. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. And then eventually the word became flesh. So you’ve got these indicators in the text that say that we’re dealing with a divine human figure whose origins predate his humanity. And so these all suggest a virgin birth, but as we have noted, there are no snakes, there are no dreams at the night, no nightmares. No husband distancing himself from a wife accordingly. None of that that we saw in these parallels.
Mikel Del Rosario
And there is the polytheistic aspect too, where with these gods or demigods you have people who occupy kind of the lower realm on the totem pole. Nobody thought Caesar Augustus was Adonai, maker of heaven and earth.
Darrell Bock
Right. And we always talk about the fact that when you deify an emperor, he kind of goes to the bottom of the pantheon. You know? And of course Jesus is portrayed as being at the top of the heap. He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the way the portrayal is. So you’re on the other end of the – whatever the Associated Press rankings are of the gods, you’re not in the section that says and these ones received votes as well. You know? [Laughter]

So Mary Jo, how do you think about this and the issue of the virgin birth? The thing that always strikes me about this story is what it is that Mary is had to go through to be a part of this event. And when she submits to the father, let it be to me according to Your will, what’s she take on?

Mary Jo Sharp
[Laughter] Wow, that’s a question. I mean, she took on being the mother of God, right? I’ll comment on that, but for me what’s amazing about this story is how very human this whole story is. Like Mikel was just pointing out, it is not real fantastic. You even have Joseph, who doesn’t want to put – Luke 1:18-21 talks about how Joseph just being a man and unwilling to put her to shame resolved to divorce Mary quietly. Like he doesn’t believe it, guys.
Darrell Bock
In Matthew 1, right. That’s right. And in the back of my mind I imagine these conversations that Mary would have had. Like imagine her having this conversation with Joseph. “I’m pregnant.” Right? Okay, that’s part one.
Mary Jo Sharp
Right. This would be very hard.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. The next question would be, “All right, how did that happen?” Right? And then her answer is, well, let me tell you… [Laughter]
Mary Jo Sharp
Because they are ancient people, but they are not foolish. They don’t just jump at any chance to say yeah, sure, great. In our current day and age we seem to think of the ancients as being willing to ascribe deity at a drop of a dime or whatever. Of course it wouldn’t have been a dime.
Darrell Bock
Right. Drop of a denarius. Come on now, get your currency right. [Laughter]
Mary Jo Sharp
So we tend to think that way. And actually what Mary had to go through, she knew that this is not something that – I mean, you could tell from Joseph’s response, this is not something that happens. They understand that this is not normal. And they don’t have examples of this just running through their history. Otherwise Joseph wouldn’t have been so like, well, I’m just going to put her down – divorce her quietly so as not to shame her. He didn’t want to shame her, but let her take the shame on herself. So he had to be told, he had to have supernatural intervention to be told to not fear taking Mary as his wife. And to me that’s very – this is a very awkward situation. It’s a very human, awkward situation.
Darrell Bock
There was a movie that came out. I don’t know, it’s been a couple of decades now, that was on the birth of Jesus. And they actually portray the moment when Mary and Joseph tell Mary’s parents what’s happening. Okay? Imagine that conversation. You know?

And even though we’re moving outside the text, there is this kind of reality that comes with what we’re talking about here. Because there would have been – and it’s clear that as Mikel suggested earlier, there was something – to use your word – awkward about what was going on because of the alternative stories that emerged about where Mary got pregnant from, et cetera, that are a part of the tradition that we see popping up not just in John’s Gospel, but also in the traditions that are associated with the polemics tied to who Jesus is, et cetera. So this is handled in our ancient materials in a way that shows that it was so unprecedented, it was hard to deal with.

Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And I think that’s a very important point that we tend to miss. Like new atheists when they’re blowing this off and when people are just sort of blowing off the virgin birth, they tend to miss the point that it wasn’t easy for them either. I mean, read the text. This is not some fantastic like serpent-lady story.
Darrell Bock
“Oh yeah, that’s God.” [Laughter]
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. But it’s very important, isn’t it? Because the virgin birth helps us to understand the full humanity of Jesus as well as the full deity.
Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Mary Jo Sharp
And that’s a very important point about this particular individual in human history; that he’s not just a god-baby who was another god who – you know, he is a god in that – you know, like other gods, he existed like a god – I don’t even know what I’m saying right at the moment. He is not something that we find in Hinduism, in Buddhism, where he is just like an avatar. Right? This is a very different thing. This is a full human and a full god-man. And he is the only one we find in history like that. That’s why it’s important to take these parallels head-to-head and to actually look at what is the implication of who is this being once he is born. Is he just another god, a product of the gods? So you need to look at that. Because then – I hope you guys are going to discuss this – there are implications for the fully-god fully-man.
Darrell Bock
We are headed there. Let me make one other pointy that I think is an issue that comes up because of the problems people have with this story. And that is we end up spending so much time discussing and defending in some cases the virgin birth when we tell the birth story sometimes, that we actually miss the points of the narrative that tell that story.

And so in Luke for example, the thrust of the infancy material is that God keeps His word. He has made His commitments, He has announced what He is going to do. The Old Testament has laid out what God is going to do. He is going to keep His word. And then you watch people be submissive to and trust the word of God. This is true – Zechariah learns this through what I call a long quiet time that he gets to have, because he didn’t believe God to begin with. And then Mary accepts it from the moment she hears it and says let it be to me according to your word, for nothing is impossible with God, is the point that the angel made. So we are supposed to trust God’s word.

On Matthew’s side we get, again, this emphasis on the fact this was designed. God showed that this was coming. And in the citation of Isaiah chapter 7 it becomes part of a whole patchwork of texts that tell us the things that happened in the birth and infancy of Jesus or things that were part of a divine program that he was setting forth. And again, his word can show that this is true.

So I tell people, when you tell the Christmas story, you aren’t just telling the story of the birth of Jesus that happened at that time; it’s part of a program and a plan that God laid out before that time in which he tipped his hand saying, “This was going to happen.”

Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And the virgin birth shows us an important point about it that you need also to make as a comparison for context, is that the virgin birth shows us that humanity needs a savior that humanity cannot produce itself. Right? That’s an important point I think people miss of the virgin birth because they just get wrapped up in the supernatural aspect. They don’t think about, well, “What is the implication of the supernatural aspect?” Well, it’s that we can’t produce someone from ourselves that can save us from ourselves. We need someone from outside of us.

And it’s fascinating, all the comic book stories of heroes that come from outside of us in order to save us, right? We seem to understand that story, the great story of mankind. That we are the cause of the problem, and so we need a savior.

Darrell Bock
And so that becomes an important part of the theme that’s raised along with the idea of just the whole background of what this represents. I like to tell people that if I was in the marketing meeting before the foundation of the world when God was planning this and he brings together his angels to plan, okay, we’re going to save the world and this is how we’re going to do it. And you’re in the marketing meeting and people get to propose, well, this is how it ought to happen. And I sit there and I think, I’m god of the universe. I’m going to send someone from our realm into the realm of humanity to deliver them. I don’t think I would have picked the way that it happened. You know? There would have been a little bit of fanfare. It would have been in a capital city. You know? There would have been a huge entourage, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And what we get instead is this very humble birth, tucked away in a little-bitty town. I mean, Bethlehem is – you go to Israel today, you’ll miss it if you’re not careful. And it’s much bigger now than it was then. And given the size of the Greco-Roman world, we are tucked away in a corner of Israel. And everything about it is this humble entry into humanity. And the virgin birth is a part of that story.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And it’s so great. It really shows us – the virgin birth really shows us that full humanity is evident from the fact that he was born as a human. Right? He was born like one of us. Even if it was in this tiny, tucked away town, He was born like one of us. He has a story like us. And you have that conception of his from God. And so He is that full deity as well.

And I love what you are bringing up about it being just right there in Israel. Of course Israel was a connector between world powers, right? If the story is going to take place of the savior of mankind coming into the world, that’s actually a pretty good place.

Darrell Bock
It’s a passageway, yes.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. Because they’re going to encounter it. There’s trade going on and all sorts of stuff. But I think people need to really – they need the virgin birth brought to reality, brought to – and they need to really deal with it as to why would God come into the world through a virgin birth. What’s the whole point of it? Rather than just dismiss it as some fantastic story. Which as Mikel has been showing and as you have been showing and I have been showing, it’s not really that fantastic.
Darrell Bock
Right. We’re talking about the creator God, who brings life. Anyway, there are people who say if God can do a resurrection, Jesus’ miracles are pretty straightforward. And so it’s that kind of an emphasis.

And I do think it’s interesting that in the midst of this you get this birth, but you don’t get it in a castle. It’s not the way most kings are born. And you don’t even get it in a home in a normal sense; you get it in a manger, in an animal trough. Everything about it shows the way God enters into humanity at the most basic levels and with a simplicity and a directness that’s important.

Mikel, what else do you think is important to note about the way in which the virgin birth story is told and the birth story is told in general?

Mikel Del Rosario
As you were mentioning, if God can raise Jesus from the dead, then the virgin birth is no big deal. I think if God can create the entire universe, then the virgin birth is clearly possible as well. I think a lot of it hinges on your belief in the ability of God to act in the world. If God is real, if Jesus came from heaven to earth, then the virgin birth is very, very plausible.

With the deity and the humanity. If Joseph was the dad, if some other guy, a Roman soldier, somebody was the dad, then how could Jesus be the god-man? On the human side, like St. Anselm wrote in Cur Deus Homo, why did God have to become a man? That as God he can pay that infinite debt that we owe in a finite period of time, but as man he can really stand in our place. And so that’s why I believe deity and humanity have to be in place for the Christian story to work.

Darrell Bock
So there are so many different ways to think about how to put this all together. It strikes me as well that in thinking about that aspect of things, the phrase in Philippians to me that I think is so powerful is he did not regard equality with God as something to be clinged onto, to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, becoming like other men and sharing in their human nature. So the whole initiative that God undertakes to make this happen. Majesty coming to earth without majesty, if I can say it that way, is a striking part of the story it seems to me.
Mary Jo Sharp
Yes. And instead of using the word fantastic, that’s the wondrous part of the story, is that the God who created the universe cares so much for His creation, which He called “good” in Genesis 1, He values it so much that He would do this as far as redeeming it. He is doing something to redeem it because it is good, because He values it. And what a wonderful way to look at the virgin birth, as having – in part of Jesus’ story, at the front end of Jesus’ story there, with us, as a way of saying look how much God values His creation, that He himself would step into it as the ultimate sacrifice for the purpose of redeeming us so that we can have relationship with Him.
Darrell Bock
And it’s interesting, because in a lot of religions the tendency is to make God so great or so powerful or so other that he distances himself from the creation, needs intermediaries or other means by which to manifest himself. But this is God, if you will, putting his nose in the dirt. You know? Actually coming down and walking and talking with us in order that we might appreciate the initiative that He undertakes to bring us back to himself. It’s a fantastic story. That’s why Christmas is a lovely part of the year.

I want to thank both of you for coming in and being a part of our day here at The Table and helping us think through the virgin birth and the parallels and the way which it works. Thank you all very much for being a part of the show.

Mikel Del Rosario
You’re welcome.
Mary Jo Sharp
Thanks for hosting us.
Darrell Bock
And we’re glad that you could be a part of The Table and hope you’ll be back again with us soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Mary Jo Sharp
Mary Jo Sharp is the founder of Confident Christianity, an apologetics ministry. Mary Jo is a former atheist from the Pacific Northwest who thought religion was for the weak-minded. She now holds a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Professor Sharp currently teaches at Houston Baptist University in the School of Christian Thought.
Mikel Del Rosario
Mikel Del Rosario is a doctoral student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles for Bibliotheca Sacra, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with confidence though his apologetics ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.
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